Google Is Missing an Android Opportunity on Non-smartphones

Android is growing like crazy on smartphones — and stagnating everywhere else. That’s because Google is keeping its app store off all Android devices that aren’t smartphones. Such an approach is understandable only in the sense that it gives the company more control over the Android experience, but it will ultimately serve to send consumers in search of devices that offer them more freedom.

Take the ARCHOS Internet Tablet that debuted in September of last year. The 5-inch slate device offers a mobile web experience powered by the Android platform, yet doesn’t offer access to the Android Market — preventing its owners from making use of even the most basic Google apps, like Gmail.

So how does Google deem a device worthy of the Android Market? Wired reports that the Market won’t appear on a device if it’s missing key hardware elements that could hamper the full experience, such as a camera, persistent data connectivity or integrated GPS radio. I can understand such an approach — to a point. After all, it’s a downer to install a video-capture-and-upload app to a device that has no camera. In this case, the end user is no better off than if he or she didn’t have access to the Market in the first place.

I reached out to Google myself, expecting to be pointed to a simple list of what it takes to gain market access — Android is an open approach, right?  Not so much. Here was the response I got from a company spokesperson:

“We ask our partners to build compatible devices, and we provide handset manufacturers with a Compatibility Test Suite. This tests devices on a range of factors to ensure they are compatible with the Android platform. Only devices that pass this test will be allowed access to Android Market, which ensures only compatible devices can download apps from our market.”

And what, exactly, makes a device “compatible”? According to the same spokesperson:

“The Compatibility Test Suite tests the device on a number of different factors and covers a majority of the APIs to see if anything inadvertently got broken. Sometimes merely porting Android to a different processor platform reveals issues with the port. This test suite makes sure all the APIs are present and behave as expected.”

Hardly an illuminating answer, and precisely the sort of approach that needs to change if Google wants to move beyond smartphones.

One way to mitigate this issue is for Google to open up access to the Market but manage software installation at the application level. Google already has the tool set to do this — when you install an Android application, the Market provides a list of device functions the software will have access to (see image). If the Android Market already knows what hardware a given program requires, why not let that mechanism work at the application level? For example, if an application requires the presence of a camera, simply don’t allow for installation of it on a non-camera device. I’m sure there are technical issues I’m not addressing here, but from a strategic directive, this ought to be possible.

If Google did this, then consumers wouldn’t have to worry if their device meets an esoteric list of hardware requirements — they could enjoy the software for which their device is equipped. Developers could gain a wider audience and earn more revenue in this scenario because of more potential customers. Hardware makers could offer devices with more appeal and functionality through software titles. And Google would come out ahead by offering a better experience with fewer restrictions on a potentially larger range of devices.

Access to the Android Market doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. And given the open nature of Android, I don’t think it should be.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):